Way of the Samurai: Beyond Good and Evil (Not the game)

Every game is about choice, but some games are more about choice than others. BioWare, among other developers, has built their reputation on allowing gamers to (somewhat) choose the path to follow throughout their titles. Other games, even as simple as the most basic of edutational titles, put the gamer in the driver’s seat. It’s the principal difference between video games and other methods of narrative: technology allows for interactivity in narrative.

Not that that means that titles necessarily have to be unique in their expression. Take Way of the Samurai. The story of this game, the Playstation 2 and PSP title from 2003, could have been randomly generated by a program designed to ape Westerns or Samurai epics. A stranger comes to town. He is confronted by multiple factions. He must make a choice on how to play these factions off against one another. He succeeds and lives to fight another day, or fails and dies. Simple stuff.

The sequels don’t expand much on that concept or the gameplay, but they don’t have to. The key concept of the game is that the player can make any number of narrative choices that affect his/her final story and score. Aid the townspeople, or pick a clan for whom to fight. Play it straight, or pit the sides against each other. One can even bypass all the troubles of the town and walk straight through. A two- to three-hour game becomes a ten-minute game. How interesting is that?

The benefits for the title are obvious. Replay is high. Discovery is encouraged. Customization of weapons is encouraged (all the better to fight, and thus see everything ending/permutation possible). Way of the Samurai may not handle like the best-designed titles, but its constraints actually help to alleviate its weaknesses (poor character animation, sometimes-stilted dialogue). Few games get away with poor mechanics in favor of story.

That in and of itself would be enough to stand up and take notice of the title. Long dead is the apex of the RPG craze, when story trumped simplistic battle schemes in gamer’s imaginations. Some people, including some game designers, state that most consumers simply don’t care about story in games. They want a fun time. They want the experience.

True or not, Way of the Samurai gives this as well. The narrative and the principle game mechanic are united. In the same way that Vertigo used colors and lenses to produce a narrative completely unique to filmmaking, Way of the Samurai gives us a true expression of gaming. It may or may not stumble in other areas, but its experimentation proved that it could be done.

“Can” (and “should”) are powerful words in art. What “can” a developer produce on an 8-bit system? A 16-bit system? A 64-bit system? What are the limitations, and how can one get around them? They can dictate what a game “should” do, too. FPS’s couldn’t really proliferate until the boundaries of the genre had been pushed to a place where such titles could give a decent gaming experience. Should creators have pushed them earlier? Should they have waited until the technology could produce a viable standard-bearer for the genre? These questions drive creators to push the limits of their abilities, to the place where consumers are confronted with the new, inspiring, challenging, and infuriating.

Want to inspire an artist even further? Add “not” to those two words. You simply cannot move the camera in an animated film. You should not allow sun flares to make it into your finished film. You cannot use that image. You should not use that word. Not everything succeeds, but each prodding and provocation pushes art in an exciting direction in which it has never been.

This pattern is endemic of larger shift in video game culture. Developers have always pushed the limits of technology when creating their games, but now many are coming to realize that simply producing an eight-figure AAA title isn’t the end-all of the art form. Smaller, riskier titles have begun to proliferate not just in the indie sphere but among major publishers as well. Dropping price points also aid in this transformation. It’s one thing to spend $60 on a 50-hour-plus title. It’s another to have to spend it on a 3-hour gamble.

In the same way that the proliferation of photography allowed for the re-examination of fine art from replication to abstraction, emerging technologies allow for “experiments” in gaming that serve to test the boundaries of the medium. Success reveals new avenues of exploration. Failure can show limitations, or that people simply aren’t ready for that kind of game yet.

Too much of this extrapolation can lead to the worst of the excesses of “art for art’s sake”, of course, but is that really so bad? Simply throwing money on a mainstream title doesn’t guarantee success. Thinking outside the box usually showcases at least one game mechanic or idea that can be utilized in a better-crafted title.

Experimentation of the form remains not just useful but essential for any art form to prosper. Morality systems, for instance, now no longer need to rely on a single plane of “good or bad.” Way of the Samurai has shown that complex morality can be accomplished in-narrative without the need of a bar to remind players just how far down the path of righteousness or sin they have gone. A player can be the noble ronin, or the embittered sell-sword, or the cynical trickster. Or all. Or none.

The game reflects life. Life reflects the game. Whether that is the point of art is debatable, but it is a discussion that has been raging for millennia. It is important to the cultural landscape of any medium. If Way of the Samurai can incite such a discussion, then it deserves a re-appraisal by current generations. Its narratives, like the lives of gamers, are not linear. They are driven by choice. Technology has caught up. Thank God.

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